Now the Israeli Village Excavating Itself Found a Byzantine Church

After discovering a Crusader winery beneath their homes, residents of the Galilean town of Mi’ilya have now found mosaics and ruins of a Byzantine church, maybe even a monastery – whose stones the Crusaders raided centuries later to build a castle

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
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The mosaic of the nave and part of the aisle, beneath the home of Eliyya and Samya Arraf
The mosaic of the nave and part of the aisle, beneath the home of Eliyya and Samya ArrafCredit: Rabei Khamisy
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Families hand down legends from generation to generation. Those told in the hilltop village of Mi’ilya in northern Israel are a little unusual. Instead of tales of derring-do or secret recipes for soup, the elders of the Arraf family told tales of what they glimpsed over a century ago when digging the foundations of their homes on the steep hillside, and again over 70 years ago: ruins of buildings and cisterns, pottery, bones, and sundry artifacts. And mosaics.

Now their children and grandchildren are excavating beneath their very own homes and gardens, on their own dime. Perhaps unusually, they are discovering that the stories were right.

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Altogether, three mosaics were found under two houses belonging to the Arrafs – each found separately during various family earthworks.

The church’s nave with an exquisite mosaic lies beneath Eliyya and Samya Arraf’s living room and the atrium, the entrance to the church, lies in their yard. The atrium mosaic is simpler than the nave and aisle mosaic, with bigger tesserae (tiles) about 2 centimeters (three-quarters of an inch) in size.

Stylized crosses and the aisle margin (the mosaic "rope" on the right) of a Byzantine church 'neath the Arraf home in Mi'ilyaCredit: Rabei Khamisy
The atrium, a cruder mosaicCredit: Rabei Khamisy

Beneath the home of Michel Arraf (Eliyya’s brother), some 15 meters away, lies another high-quality mosaic.

Theoretically the two fine mosaics could have belonged to two churches. But Byzantine Mi’ilya had only about 500 to 600 residents, who wouldn’t likely have sustained two churches right next to one another, Khamisy says. Based on the evidence, he thinks the Arrafs may be living on the ruins not of a church or two churches, but a monastery complex dating to about 1,600 years ago.

Breakfast for foxes

The story begins in the year 1875 when the Arraf ancestors left the shelter of the Crusader castle on the hilltop and built a typical Ottoman-style house about 200 meters downhill from the stronghold.

Their peers were reportedly appalled. “When they decided to leave the protection of the castle, family legend has it that people warned their great-great-grandfather that they’d get eaten by foxes,” Khamisy laughs.

Undaunted by the threat of man-eating midget canids, the family commenced construction. While digging the foundations for the Ottoman house, they evidently found two of the mosaics, from the church and the atrium. This is based both on family lore and because Khamisy’s recent excavations showed that the foundations of the house actually cut into the mosaics.

Stylized crosses in the nave of the Byzantine church of Mi'ilyaCredit: Rabei Khamisy

In any case, in 1875 the two mosaics were covered over and relegated to fireside tales. Years passed. As the family grew, during the British Mandate Period in the 1930s, they built a three-room house near the Ottoman one. Then in 1952, they decided to expand their living space some more by connecting the two houses. Digging the foundations for the new home and an adjacent storage cellar in the yard, they rediscovered the mosaics later identified as church and atrium.

Nobody knew what these mosaics were, but the Arrafs were thrilled anyway and kept them open for a year. “Kids would come from school to see it,” Khamisy says. “My father was 12 years old then and remembers it.”

The Arraf kids at the time were apparently especially impressed. Rakad Arraf had also been 12 when the mosaics were found in 1952 and sketched the stylized crosses on his physics notebook. That went missing, but decades later, at the behest of the family considering whether to deliver their home to posterity, he drew it again from memory – which turned out to be pretty accurate, Khamisy says.

Rakad’s sister Juliette had been 10 and had a clear memory of the stylized, cross-shaped decorations, the archaeologist adds. When they dug where she indicated, they found that part of the mosaic. “It must have made quite an impression for them to remember it so accurately to this day,” Khamisy remarks.

Stylized crosses - with different styles on each side of a pillar base, in the Byzantine church of Mi'ilyaCredit: Rabei Khamisy
Meet the Arrafs: from left, Amjad, Ayman and Iyas - then the archaeologist Rabei Khamisy - and Eliyya ArrafCredit: Rabei Khamisy

In 1953, the Arrafs covered up the church mosaic again (still not knowing what it was) and finished building the connecting building’s foundations, Khamisy relates. The atrium mosaic remained viewable through a trapdoor in the yard into the storage cellar.

Then in the 1980s, Eliyya’s brother Michel began groundwork for a house next door and found the third mosaic, also church-quality, which had been unknown.

Selfish interest would have dictated that Michel cover the thing up and continue to build in peace. In practice, he demonstrated exemplary civic concern and called in the Israel Antiquities Authority, which in 1988 excavated it at the family’s behest and expense, Khamisy explains.

The new mosaic was 6 by 3 meters and featured part of a “medallion” – an inscription in Greek. Following study of the mosaic, it too was covered up and construction resumed, but its excavation for exhibition is also under discussion. Michel does aspire for it to be uncovered and exhibited, Khamisy says, adding that he personally believes it to have adorned a building associated with the church.

Archaeologist Prof. Moti Aviam of the Kinneret College, an expert on the Byzantine churches in the Holy Land not connected with the Mi’ilya excavation, agrees: possibly the Arrafs are living on a monastery. Or Michel’s mosaic was the bishop’s house next door to the church. Or it was a small side chapel, which wasn’t rare in these parts during Byzantine times.

The Arrafs' room before the excavationCredit: Rabei Khamisy
The Arrafs' room after excavationCredit: Rabei Khamisy

“Kursi, for example [the site associated with Jesus’ miracle of the swine], has a big monastery with two small chapels right by them. The ancient church in Karmiel also has a small chapel on the side,” Aviam says.

In either case, the inhabitants of the Ottoman house have moved upstairs while the nave and aisle shine on their ground floor. Only one room downstairs remains in use, which, Khamisy remarks, may be atop the entrance to the church.

During their decades of digging, the family also unearthed a number of Byzantine and later antiquities, including a crusader-period clay oil lamp that is in perfect condition, Haaretz can affirm: The family still has it after more than 100 years.

Not the garden!

Before going gooey-eyed over the blessing in finding an early Christian domain of worship in one’s house, note that the Arrafs are paying for the excavation out of pocket and have had to vacate the parts of their manse undergoing archaeological excavation.

Another inconvenience will be having to build yet another home in the foreseeable future as the family continues to expand, Khamisy points out. Building a new house can easily run at 1.5 million shekels (about $450,000).

Yet if something stuck in the family craw, it was less the loss of their drawing room and more the risk to their garden, father Eliyya and son Iyas tell Haaretz. Thick with thriving plants rooted in the ground and a wealth of potted specimens, the family – and especially mother Samya – had invested a great deal in it.

The rub is that according to Khamisy’s structural analysis, based on the conservative layout of Byzantine churches 1,500 to 1,600 years ago, the apse lies underneath the ornamental vegetation.

Eliyya and Samya in their garden, before the deluge of diggersCredit: Rabei Khamisy
Walls found beneath the precious garden by the Arraf home - but no apseCredit: Rabei Khamisy

In fact, the Arrafs did let Khamisy gingerly dig into one part of the garden, leaving most of it intact. He found walls, but no apse was identified thus far. Right now, further subterranean exploration of the garden is on hold.

By the way, Khamisy has a bird’s-eye view of the digs because he lives right across the street.

Conservative Byzantine architecture

Like all excavations in Israel, permission from the Israel Antiquities Authority was required and the institution Khamisy is affiliated with – he is a member of the Zinman Institute of Archaeology at the University of Haifa – also gave its blessing. The dig is being done by villagers and volunteers for the mission, led by Khamisy, with the blessing of the Arrafs: father Eliyya, mother Samya, and their sons Amjad, Ayman and Iyas.

Aside from the two mosaics in Eliyya and Samya’s home, the archaeologists found the bases of three pillars, which was in keeping with the plan of Byzantine churches. In short, the mosaic in the house was part of the church nave and one of its aisles, Khamisy deduces. It is based on the conservative structure of Byzantine churches that he suspects the apse is under that untouchable garden.

Another hallmark of Byzantine churches was a special pit for holy water, and they found one in the postulated atrium.

Khamisy and Aviam agree that the church dates to the fifth or sixth century. By the early seventh century, the land was under Muslim control and while some church construction continued, it was less and the mosaic artwork wasn't as fine. The best mosaic artists were diverted to Islamic works and the Christians' budgets were probably much tighter as well, Aviam points out.

The two also note the clear east-west orientation of the Mi’ilya church, based on the pillars and mosaics.

“In the Byzantine empire, 99.9 percent of the churches were oriented east-west,” Aviam explains: the sun rises in the east, the sun is the light and the light is Jesus. While worship of Helios the sun god was pagan, the Byzantines did not cavil at the imagery of the sun’s personification, conflating it with the savior – in art, not in faith, Aviam stresses.

Also, the size of the church is typical of the Byzantine period, Khamisy adds. He’s confident this will be borne out when they rip up the room next door.

Supporting the theory that this was a monastery, remains of an olive oil press were found under the home of another next-door neighbor, Qaysar Farran.

The Crusaders help themselves

In the near future, the Arrafs and Khamisy plan to attack the second ground-floor room in the Ottoman edifice, expecting to find more of the nave, and the northern aisle too.

But where is the apse? “I have a whole section of nave, I see its borders. The area between the pillars is beautifully preserved, so I know where the nave begins. I have the atrium, which provides the western border, and I have the water pit so I know how long the atrium was. And because Byzantine architecture is conservative – when I have a nave and an aisle, I can guess where the apse was,” Khamisy says, with some frustration. “But we haven’t found it, and probably won’t.”

Why the pessimism? Not just because it could still lie under the unpersecuted part of the garden, but because it could be gone.

The treading floods of the Crusader winery found in 2017Credit: Rabei Khamisy

The original village excavators found small stuff and the mosaics 145 years ago, but no big stones, columns or capitals, Khamisy explains. And they should have.

“A church like that should have two rows of at least five columns each. There are none. The Ottoman house [built in 1875] has perhaps old stones. They couldn’t have vanished into thin air.”

In the year 614, the Persians swept over the land, wreaking havoc, including in the Galilee. The church could have been destroyed then. And then came the Muslim conquest, followed by the earthquake in the year 641, and subsequent demographic change.

Mi’ilya lay all but fallow, its ruins exposed. Then, some 700 years after this church or monastery existed, the Crusaders arrived. And it seems they helped themselves to the Byzantine buildings’ stone bricks and even their ornamentation to build their castle or another church a couple of hundred meters uphill from the church ruins, in roughly the year 1150. “The capitals near the castle likely came from the church,” Khamisy remarks.

Crusader castle in Mi'ilyaCredit: Rabei Khamisy

Fact is, if the church’s capitals had remained in situ, over the years the Arrafs and other local families would have found them and exhibited them lovingly in their gardens, he points out. That's what they've done with discoveries from all the town's incarnations, including the Mamluk and Roman periods.

The village waxed greater again under the Crusaders in the 12th and 13th centuries, becoming King Baldwin III’s center of rule, and the home of what may have been the biggest winery in the Crusader kingdom.

Khamisy led the excavation of the winery in 2017, financed by Mi’ilya restaurateur Salma Assaf. She too bore the cost of having her building dug up. At about the same time, hundreds of villagers footed the bill to renovate parts of the dangerously crumbling castle.

Arguably, though once the seat of a Crusader king, Mi’ilya is at its greatest today as the villagers come together to discover, recover and exhibit the past hidden in the floors beneath their feet. They don’t have to do it, Khamisy points out. They know perfectly well that if they find something, they’ll feel compelled to conserve it and might not be able to live in their own house anymore.

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